The condition of a colony of bees in the early spring will depend largely upon the care it was given in the preceding Fall or Autumn season, and in the method it was wintered. If the colony has wintered well, and has a good prolific, young queen, the chances are that it will become strong in time to store a good surplus when the honey flow comes.
The bees which make it through the winter, are old and may be incapable of much work. As the season opens they go out to collect the early nectar and pollen, and also care for the brood. The amount of brood is at first small, and as the new workers emerge they assist in the brood rearing so that the extent of the brood can be gradually increased until it reaches its maximum about the beginning of the summer. The old bees die off rapidly.
If brood rearing does not continue late in the fall, so that the colony goes into winter with a large percentage of young bees, the old bees may die off in the spring faster than they are replaced by emerging brood. This is known as “spring dwindling.” A preventive remedy for this may be applied by feeding, if necessary, the autumn before, or keeping up brood rearing as late as possible by some other means.
If spring dwindling begins, however, it can be diminished somewhat by keeping the colony warm and by stimulative feeding, so that all the energy of the old bees may be put to the best advantage in rearing brood to replace those dying off. The size of the brood chamber can also be reduced to conserve heat.
It sometimes happens that when a hive is examined in the spring the hive body and combs are spotted with brownish yellow excrement. This is an evidence of what is commonly called ” dysentery.” The cause of this trouble is long – continued confinement with a poor quality of honey for food. Honeydew honey and some of the inferior floral honeys contain a relatively large percentage of material which bees can not digest, and, if they are not able to fly for some time, the intestines become clogged with faecal matter, and a diseased condition results. Worker bees never normally deposit their feces in the hive. The obvious preventive for this is to provide the colony with good honey or sugar syrup the previous fall. “Dysentery” frequently entirely destroys colonies, but if the bees can pull through until warm days permit a cleansing flight they recover promptly.
Bees should not be handled in the early spring any more than necessary, for to open a hive in cool weather wastes heat and may even kill the brood by chilling. The hive should be kept as warm as possible in early spring as an aid to brood rearing. It is a good practice to wrap hives in black tar paper in the spring, not only that it may aid in conserving the heat of the colony, but in holding the sun’s heat rays as a help to the warmth of the hive. This wrapping should be put on as soon as an early examination has shown the colony to be in good condition, and there need be no hurry in taking it off. A black wrapping during the winter is not desirable, as it might induce brood rearing too early and waste the strength of the bees.
As a further stimulus to brood rearing, stimulative feeding of sugar syrup in early spring may be practiced. This produces much the same effect as a light honey flow does and the results are often good. Others prefer to give the bees such a large supply of stores in the fall that when spring comes they will have an abundance for brood rearing, and it will not be necessary to disturb them in cool weather. Both ideas are good, but judicious stimulative feeding usually more than pays for the labor. Colonies should be fed late in the day, so that the bees will not fly as a result of it, and so that robbing will not be started. When the weather is warmer and more settled the brood cluster may be artificially enlarged by spreading the frames so as to insert an empty comb in the middle. The bees will attempt to cover all the brood that they already had, and the queen will at once begin laying in the newly inserted comb, thus making a great increase in the brood. This practice is desirable when carefully done, but may lead to serious results if too much new brood is produced. A beginner had better leave the quantity of brood to the bees.
It is desirable early in the season, before any preparations are made for swarming, to go through the apiary and clip one wing of each queen (see p. 30). This should be done before the hive becomes too populous. It is perhaps best to clip queens as they are introduced, but some colonies may rear new ones without the knowledge of the owner, and a spring examination will insure no escaping swarms. The beginner should perhaps be warned not to clip the wings of a virgin queen.
Queens sometimes die during the winter and early spring, and since there is no brood from which the bees can replace them, the queenless colonies are “hopelessly queenless.” Such colonies are usually restless and are not active in pollen gathering. If, on opening a colony, it is found to be without a queen and reduced in numbers, it should be united with another colony by smoking both vigorously and caging the queen in the queen-right colony for a day or two to prevent her being killed. A frame or two of brood may be added to a queenless colony, not only to increase its strength, but to provide young brood from which they can rear a queen. Beekeepers in the North can frequently buy queens from southern breeders early in the spring and naturally this is better than leaving the colony without a queen until the bees can rear one, as it is important that there be no stoppage in brood rearing at this season.